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Can John Arquilla’s Rules of New Age Warfare Be Taken to Sea?

By Robert C. Rubel

Thomas Friedman’s 13 April New York Times opinion piece recounts an interview with John Arquilla, a distinguished former grand strategy instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School.  In explaining Ukraine’s impressive military performance in the face of the Russian invasion, Arquilla cites three rules of new age warfare from his book Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare, and their application is quite fitting.  If these rules concocted for cyberwarfare apply to ground warfare, might they also apply to warfare at sea?  If so, what are the implications?

Arquilla’s three rules are as follows:

  1. Many and small beats large and heavy
  2. Finding always beats flanking
  3. Swarming always beats surging

These rules are few and simply stated – generally a good thing when it comes to parsing a complex phenomenon like war.  And they do have a true new age feel to them; terms like many, small, finding, and swarming convey the notion that information technology in the form of micro-miniaturization makes even small weapons more powerful.  That said, there are words in the rules that raise alarms; categorical words like always convey a superficiality that experienced warfighters and analysts immediately suspect. But nonetheless, it is worth exploring how these rules could impact future naval warfare and fleet design.

Rule 1: Many and Small Beats Large and Heavy

As missiles become faster, longer range, smarter, and even harder to defeat, they might very well challenge the traditional relationship between capability and tonnage. The introduction of potent hypersonic missiles adds saliency to the application of this rule to naval warfare, calling into question the vulnerability of large capital ships such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The most powerful weapons of yore, namely major caliber guns and jet aircraft, required large hulls to support their operations and the remainder of fleet design followed from there. However, missiles tend to break the relationship between weapon power and ship displacement, just as they break the relationship between capability and cost; hundreds of thousands of Tomahawk missiles could have been bought for the same price as the F-35 program. 

A missile-centric fleet design that took advantage of the new opportunities might consist of numerous smaller units of various types. The nascent U.S. Marine Corps concept of small detachments operating anti-ship missile launchers from dispersed locations reflects that logic as does – albeit incompletely – the U.S. Navy’s concept of Distributed Maritime Operations. Operating a highly dispersed force would complicate enemy targeting.

Moving past the categorical nature of the rule, we must also acknowledge that operating dispersed forces in the maritime environment is not the same as small groups of soldiers toting Javelin anti-tank missiles. For starters, deploying and sustaining a dispersed force will be more difficult than current battle groups composed of large ships. Then there is the matter of command and control. Since the conceptual emergence of “network-centric warfare” in the late 1990s, the vision of a dispersed, heterogeneous force knitted together by a network has been at least the tacit basis for communications and data processing developments. The various challenges to realizing this vision have not yet been overcome, and so adopting highly dispersed operations before such a comprehensive and resilient battle force network is operational would require a new and more sophisticated approach to mission command. These are just a few concerns that make application of the rule at sea less than straightforward. Nonetheless, the inherent character of modern missiles does add credibility to the rule when it comes to naval warfare.

Rule 2: Finding Always Beats Flanking

Putting aside the word always, the rule would not at first glance seem to apply at sea, where ships can maneuver “fluidly” as it were. There is perhaps some whiff of flanking in the concept of threat sector. If battle group defenses, say the positioning of escorts or combat air patrol stations is oriented on an expected threat sector, then an enemy that can succeed in approaching outside of that sector might be regarded as flanking. But this is speculative. However, if we think of flanking at sea as achieving an operational level ambush, we can see it exhibited in historic naval campaigns and battles. At Midway, the US task force took a position to the northeast of Midway Island and succeeded in ambushing the Japanese carrier force. In March of 1805 Admiral Horatio Nelson took a “secret position” between Sardinia and Mallorca hoping to ambush Admiral Villenueve’s French fleet if it sailed toward Italy or Egypt. 

Now, in the Midway case, the Japanese forces did not find the American task force until too late and suffered the loss of three aircraft carriers (Hiryu was sunk later, after the US task force had been located). In Nelson’s case the ambush would have worked because Villenueve, even though his orders were to escape the Mediterranean via Gibraltar, had planned to sail east of Mallorca, which would have led him into Nelson’s trap. However, a merchant ship had seen Nelson’s force and reported it to Villenueve, who altered his route to west of Mallorca. If the Japanese had located the American task force earlier, the results of Midway would likely have been much different. Both examples reveal the critical importance of finding first.

Anyone familiar with the writing of legendary Naval Postgraduate School Professor Wayne Hughes’ and his principle of “strike effectively first,” will immediately see the connection with this rule. Getting in an effective first strike requires finding effectively first, and no naval ambush can occur if this does not happen. This in turn requires enemy scouting efforts are ineffective and the enemy commander remains ignorant of the ambushing force. The act of finding and striking effectively first should not be viewed in momentary isolation or as singularly decisive, because command decision-making at all levels will be critical in maneuvering these finding and striking forces prior to successful engagements. So, while the term flanking does not translate well into naval warfare, its implied dependency on maneuver does carry over.

Rule 3: Swarming Always Beats Surging

The third rule is a bit trickier to relate to naval warfare. Arquilla states in the interview that “You don’t need big numbers to swarm the opponent with a lot of small smart weapons.” The implication is that instead of achieving mass or concentration of force using symmetrical weapons, tanks versus tanks, for instance, forces can make asymmetric attacks by using smart weapons not tied to big platforms, i.e., many teams of Javelin shooters versus columns of Russian tanks. In that sense the third rule seems to be merely a restatement of the first. That said, swarming is a term that has taken on new meaning in an age of smart drones. The notion of a large number of small things “besetting” a target conveys Arquilla’s implicit meaning. 

Picking this apart a bit more, let’s regard surging as the assembling of a force or capability that is greater than that of the enemy it is confronting – the traditional concentration of force, either at the operational or tactical level. Swarming, on the other hand, implies coming at a particular enemy target from everywhere, whether the besetting attack is centrally planned or whether it is based on the self-synchronization of the individual swarming entities. Surging implies a numerical relationship between the opposing forces, one presumably outnumbering the other. Swarming involves no such relationship – it is about having enough individual units to beset a target from all sides either simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Swarming seems generally to apply to the tactical, unit or even weapons level.

An instantiation of swarming in naval warfare would involve the use of deception drones or missiles meant to saturate an enemy ship’s defenses. The US Navy devised an elemental form of swarming tactics in its attempt, after the showdown with the Soviet Fleet in the Mediterranean in 1973, to generate some kind of anti-ship capability, which it had let lapse after World War II. The tactic involved a formation of five aircraft approaching the enemy ship at low level. Flying in close formation it would look like one blip on enemy radars. At a certain point the aircraft would starburst, fanning out in different directions and then turning back in based on careful timing such that they would arrive at their bomb release points in rapid succession. The maneuver was meant to confuse the target ship’s fire control systems and at the end saturate defenses such that at least one aircraft would be able to reach its release point. 

Surging implies Lanchestrian calculations that reveal the superiority of numbers; swarming is about creating confusion, using relatively large numbers for sure, but not in the strict relative sense addressed by Lanchester’s equations.1 This point is widely appreciated: China is thought to have developed large numbers of deceptive drones and missile warheads that can deploy decoys to achieve confusion and saturation of US Navy ship defenses.

At the present state of the art, achieving swarming would still require either a large number of launching platforms or engagement from relatively close range.  If the Navy did adopt the concept of a flotilla of smaller missile combatants there would have to be significant covering and deception efforts to get them into position to use their missiles and decoys. On the other hand, cover for a salvo of long range missiles might be provided by long range bombers that could launch decoys in addition to anti-ship missiles. However, the central point is that swarming – no matter how it is achieved – offers potential relief from the brute force logic of Lanchester’s equations.

Taking the Rules to Sea

If we combine Arquilla’s three rules, what do we get in terms of a picture of future naval warfare? First, it would seem that we could articulate a rather more nuanced rule: the force that can find, evaluate and target first will have a significant advantage. However, if both sides forces are composed of smaller, dispersed missile-shooting units, be they surface, air or subsurface, both fleets would likely be more resilient if they had to absorb a first strike. A naval battle would then become a geographically dispersed, cat-and-mouse game of progressive attrition. The game board would include not only the ocean, including the air above, adjacent land features and the depths below, but space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. If swarming attacks were fully developed and employed, the only defense would be to avoid detection through stand-off, stealth, or deception.  The set piece naval battle would be replaced by an extended campaign of raids and quick strikes, followed by rapid retreat into sanctuaries or out of range. Knowledge of the tactical and operational situation would be intermittent and mostly fragmentary. The chances of putting together a large and coordinated missile salvo from dispersed units would be small, assuming the enemy is able to disrupt friendly networks in some way, so each unit must be armed with missiles that have the ability to create their own terminal swarms. This would allow for a form of swarming on a larger scale; dispersed units would operate on the basis of mission orders, and a swarming rule set, including a precise definition of calculated risk appropriate to the situation. The operation of German U-boat wolf packs in World War II constituted a nascent form of such a battle.

Neither the formalized collision of lines of dreadnoughts nor the long range groping of carrier battles are likely to characterize future naval warfare. Arquilla’s three rules imply intermittent and dispersed missile-based campaigns of attrition that will extend over days, weeks or even months; the quick and decisive clash at sea could very well be a thing of the past. If this is so, fleet design must be rethought. Missiles, not tactical aircraft dropping bombs, will be the decisive weapons. The Fleet’s offensive power must be distributed among a larger number of platforms, and its doctrine must include ground and long-range air elements. Logistics for such a force that would allow it to remain in contested areas for extended periods must be worked out. Sensing and processing as well as resilient communications will, in effect, become the new “capital ship” of the Navy, as these will allow the offensive missiles to be most effective in accordance with Arquilla’s rules. There will be a continuing need for some residual legacy forces, as the Navy has a multi-faceted and global mission, but for high-end naval combat in littoral waters, a force designed around Arquilla’s rules will be needed in order to fight at acceptable levels of strategic risk.

Does all this have implications for traditional naval concepts like command of the sea and sea control? Almost certainly. Command of the sea has heretofore meant that the weaker navy either could not or would not directly confront the stronger. This allowed the stronger navy to use the seas for its own purposes and deny such use to the weaker. But if sea power becomes atomized, composed of many missile shooting units, then the deterrent basis for command of the sea evaporates. We see a nascent form of this already with the Chinese land-based DF-21 and 26 anti-ship ballistic missiles. While this condition may initially be limited to specific littoral regions, the continued development of naval forces shaped by Arquilla’s rules would imply that command of the sea could be contested by weaker navies farther and farther out at sea, to the point that the concept loses meaning. Sea control, the function of protecting things like merchant traffic or geographic points, would become the paramount concept and demand the utmost in dispersion of forces – strategic, operational and tactical. Thus navies desiring to produce for their nations the traditional benefits of command of the sea would have to be composed of numerous and therefore cheaper units so that naval power would be available at any and all points needed, whenever that need arose.

Chaos theory shows how complex phenomena can emerge from simple rule sets. If we tease out their threads, Arquilla’s three simple rules for new age warfare seem to be able to perform that trick with regards to naval warfare and the design of navies. We might look askance at the categorical tone he uses in those rules, but that should not cause us to dismiss them as new age fluff. Some basis for fleet design is needed beyond the narrow incorporation of the next better radar or aircraft, and these three rules seem to be worth considering in that endeavor.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.


1. In its simplest form it is Aa2 = Bb2 where A and B equal the quality of the respective forces; a and b represent the number of forces. This reflects the dominance of numbers in calculating the outcome of engagements.

Featured Image: KEKAHA, Hawaii – Artillery Marines from 1st Battalion, 12th Marines escort a Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System launcher vehicle ashore aboard Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, Aug. 16, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Being There Counts: Forward Naval Presence and a Theory of Influence

By Captain R. Robinson (Robby) Harris, USN (ret.)


In his November 1997 Proceedings article, Admiral Jay Johnson, the Chief of Naval Operations, reflected on the landmark white papers …From the Sea, Forward…From the Sea, and the Navy Operating Concept and opined, “…the purpose of the United States Navy is to influence, directly and decisively, events ashore…from the sea, anywhere, and anytime.”1 Scratch nearly any thoughtful naval officer and one finds an intuitive belief that naval forces, particularly forward present naval forces, possess the capability to affect events ashore, indeed even to deter actions by other nations. But how does the ability to influence events ashore really work? What is the theoretical underpinning? Such questions normally leave us mumbling platitudes and surveying the dust on our shoes. This paper is intended to begin to build a theoretical understanding of influence, particularly how forward present naval forces influence events and actors ashore.

Why a Theory of Influence

Before considering “how” forward present naval forces support and foster U.S. influence, first, let us briefly consider why a theory of influence is necessary in the first place. Who needs it? 

First, a theory helps us understand patterns of behavior. It helps us explain why events occurred in the past in a particular way, and a theory also serves as an aid in predicting future events. This does not mean that a theory will enable us to predict with perfect clairvoyance events of the future. What theory can do, however, is to allow us to “…trace the different tendencies which are inherent in the situation and to point out the different conditions which make it more likely for one tendency to prevail than for another, and, finally, assess the probabilities for the different conditions and tendencies to prevail in actuality.”2 The role of theory, then, is not just to account for the past or to explain the present but to provide a preview of what is to come. A theory of influence may be beneficial in helping us understand how nations have influenced each other in the past and to predict how influence may be accomplished in the future. Lastly, understanding how nations influence each other may help us deal with the issue of forward naval presence and how carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups affect influence.

A Definition of Influence

In the foreign policy arena, influence is an index of state power. Regarding power, it is often said that power is to foreign policy experts and practitioners what money is to economists: the medium via which transactions between states are measured and observed.3 Power, however, is a useful concept only in its relative sense. That is, absolute measures of military strength, gross domestic product, technological advancement, and others are helpful, but provide an incomplete gauge of power. Power cannot be adequately assessed until it is employed, and it is employed by nations engaged in the process of attempting to influence each other. Until one state attempts to influence another, we have no useful measure of power. Accordingly, the following definition is offered: influence is the ability of one state to secure a decision and/or an action or inaction by another state consistent with the former’s desires.4

Characteristics of Influence

Although not all inclusive, there are some important characteristics of influence.

All influence attempts are future-oriented. It is impossible to influence the past. Nor is it possible to influence the present unless a decision was made in the past to do so. Accordingly, all influence attempts are made to affect the anticipated future behavior of another state.

Influence does not necessarily imply a modification of another state’s behavior. There are situations in which one state (the influencee) is currently behaving and/or is predicted to behave as desired by another state (the influencer), but in which the influencer nevertheless attempts to increase the probability of continued favorable behavior. This type of influence activity on the part of the influencer is called reinforcement.5

Inter-nation influence is not dyadic in nature. For analytical or planning purposes, it is convenient to think only of the reciprocal influence of one pair of nations on each other, but clearly the international system is not a dyad. Many nations simultaneously influence many others, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional or deliberate influence is called direct influence.6 Not only is the system characterized by reciprocity, but by multiple reciprocity.

Purposes of Influence

Having defined influence and reviewed some salient characteristics, let us now consider the purposes for which influence is used. Remembering that all influence is future-oriented, the following proposition is offered: Nations attempt to influence other nations for one of two purposes7 including to modify the anticipated behavior of another nation, and/or to assure or increase the probability of the anticipated behavior of another nation.

One normally thinks of attempts to influence behavior within the context of behavioral modification. That is, one nation predicts that the behavior of another nation will be unfavorable and via various means and with various tools attempts to influence the nation in question to modify the anticipated unfavorable behavior. But as posited above, nations also attempt to influence other nations to assure or to increase the probability that the nation in question will continue to behave favorably.

Influence Objectives

Let us now examine the objectives for which states attempt to modify or maintain/assure the behavior of other states. The following proposition is offered: the objectives for which states attempt to modify or to maintain the behavior of other states are based on the acceptability of the influencee’s predicted behavior. If the predicted behavior is favorable, the influencer will use means to promote or to reinforce the predicted behavior. On the other hand, if the predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer’s objective will be to employ means to deter or to compel the other nation. This taxonomy is presented in Table One.

If a nation predicts that another nation will behave favorably, clearly there would be no reason to attempt to modify that behavior. Similarly, if a nation predicts that another nation will behave unfavorably, there would be no reason to attempt to assure that behavior. On the other hand, if another nation’s predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer may elect to attempt to modify that behavior by attempting to deter the subject nation from taking a predicted unfavorable course of action. It should be noted that deterrence assumes that the influencee has not yet taken the unfavorable course of action. Compellence, conversely, assumes that the influencee has already taken an unfavorable course of action and must be influenced to rescind or withdraw from its unfavorable action.

If nations could predict with complete accuracy the behavior of other nations, efforts to promote or reinforce predicted favorable behavior would not be necessary. Because of the complexity of the international system and the poverty of intellectual disciplines involved, however, such predictability is not feasible. Accordingly, states attempt to increase the probability of anticipated favorable behavior by promoting behavior which is seen to be proceeding in a favorable direction and attempt to reinforce established favorable behavior.

Some examples of influence efforts to deter, compel, reinforce, and promote may be helpful:

  • Deterrence. The role of U.S. and Allied forces in Europe from 1945-1991 was to deter an attack by Soviet/Warsaw Pact forces. Similarly, Sixth Fleet forces in the Mediterranean were present to deter an attack on NATO’s southern flank.
  • Compellence. As Desert Shield/Storm coalition forces were mustered in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf from August 1990 through January 1991, threats were made to Saddam Hussein to compel him to withdraw from Kuwait. Because these threats (attempts to influence) were unsuccessful, actual use of force (armed conflict) was required to compel withdrawal.
  • Reinforcement. Among other objectives, the presence of U.S. forces in western Europe in the post-Cold War era also serves principally to reassure European allies of continued U.S. interest in European matters and reinforces current European policies favorable to the U.S. The Navy and Marine Corps conduct manifold exercises every year with friends and allies around the world to reinforce positive relations.
  • Promotion. In addition to stemming the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., U.S. engagement in Latin America today serves to promote the evolving change to democratic governments and market driven economies. The presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific promotes and reinforces peaceful relations among the nations of Northeastern and Southeastern Asia.

Techniques of Influence

Relations between nations range from complete consensus on almost all issues (U.S.-U.K.) to total discord on nearly all issues (U.S.-Iran). The amount and type of influence required for the influencer to achieve desired behavior on the part of the influencee varies with the nature of the relationship between two nations and their level of shared interests.

For example, when dealing with the U.K., in many if not most instances, very little if any influence is required for the U.S. to achieve its desires. This is because of the high level of shared interests between the two English-speaking nations. The situation between the U.S. and U.K. is rather like a family situation when a brother approaches his sister to enlist her support in making arrangements to obtain medical care for an ill parent. Because both siblings share a common interest in the health and well-being of the parent, normally no influence is required by the brother to gain the sister’s cooperation – a simple request may be sufficient.

On the other hand, since the 1979 revolution, the U.S. and Iran have shared so few common interests that extraordinary leverage has been required for the U.S. to achieve its desires vis-a-vis Iran and vice versa. These have ranged from crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to the use of force against Iranian military assets during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s.

Most relations between nations lie somewhere between the U.S.-U.K. and the U.S.-Iran extremes. On those occasions when influence is required, two broad categories of techniques are available to the influencer.

Techniques of Influence

A threat is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that unless the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to punish the influencee. A promise is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that if the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to reward the influencee. Although not necessarily always the case, in most instances threats are used to deter and to compel and promises are used to reinforce and promote.

Tools of Influence

With respect to the tools of influence, states may use diplomatic, economic, military, and informational tools to punish and to reward targets of influence.

Military tools of influence may be used to achieve military goals as well as political and economic objectives. Similarly, political and economic tools may sometimes be useful in gaining military objectives. For example, a trade embargo or conversely promising most favored nation trade status could be effective in deterring a nation from the sale of weapons of mass destruction. However, as relations between nations worsen, as they share fewer common interests, objectives can become more militarily dominated and defined, thereby causing the effectiveness of military tools of influence to increase.

Consider, for example, ensuring Iran compliance with UN sanctions. Although diplomatic demarches (political tool) and trade sanctions (economic tool) had been employed as threats to influence Iranian behavior, arguably the most effective tool to condition Iran’s actions is the presence of military forces (military tool) on the ground in allied states and naval forces on station in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. Moreover, because the predominant concern of U.S. allies and friends in Middle East is one of military security (against an assertive Iran) military tools take on disproportionate influence for the U.S. in region.

The Effectiveness of Influence

Having derived a definition of influence, examined its characteristics, the purposes and objectives for which it is used, the techniques employed to achieve it, and the effect of shared interests on the requirements for the use of those techniques, let us now consider what makes influence effective.

Here we must examine the influencee’s decision calculus, and how the influencee weighs a range of outcomes of an influence situation. Two dimensions come into play: utility and probability.8 The degree to which the influencee likes or dislikes the prospect is called utility or disutility. The likelihood that the influencee assigns to the outcomes ever occurring is called probability. The influencee’s combined assessments of these two dimensions determines expectations and thus the influencee’s response to the influence attempt.

 Each nation has, either explicitly or implicitly, a continuum from good to bad along which it assesses outcomes of an influence attempt. The continuum is based on values systems and although values systems certainly are not uniform from nation to nation, there is some degree of similarity. Outcomes which tend to restrict a nation’s freedom of action are normally placed low on the utility scale (or high on the disutility scale). Conversely, outcomes which do not restrict freedom of action are placed high on the utility scale (low disutility score).

Nations do not, however, make decisions based solely on the attractiveness or unattractiveness of various potential outcomes. Nations also compare outcomes not only in terms of desirability, but also in terms of estimated likelihood. While some nations are more risk-prone than others, most nations are fairly conservative in foreign policy. They seldom commit resources and prestige to the pursuit of an outcome which seems improbable, regardless of how attractive the outcome may be.

Despite idiosyncrasies along one or the other dimension (utility/probability), nations combine both sets of considerations in responding to an influence attempt. The decision of how to respond to an influence attempt is the result of a utility and probability calculation.

Thus, for an influence attempt to be successful, the influencer must address something that the influencee considers valuable (high utility) and the influencer must persuade the influencee that the influencer will take action as threatened or promised (i.e., the influencer must be perceived as credible). Thus, the utility-probability calculus determines influencee response both to threats (deterrence/compellence) and promises (reinforcement/promotion).

Recent studies suggest that there is another important dimension to credibility, one not based solely on military capability or political will to use military force, but the speed with which military power (influence) can be employed.9 That is, the influencee’s knowledge that the influencer possesses the capability to act without delay seems to be a key component in the influencee’s decision calculus. This, of course, bolsters and helps to explain the argument advanced by the Navy and Marine Corps regarding the special “shaping” (influencing) role of forward present Navy and Marine Corps forces. Their nearly constant presence in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf, and western Pacific is a visible reminder to friend and foe alike of U. S. intent, capability, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to act swiftly.


So, what does all this discussion of a theory of influence add up to? Hopefully, it will help naval officers better understand what we tend to understand intuitively already: forward present naval forces play a special role in influencing (shaping) other nations.

These forces are able to fulfill both purposes of influence: Assure the continuation of anticipated positive behavior and modify anticipated negative behavior. They are able to achieve both objectives of influence: Promote/reinforce positive behavior, and deter anticipated negative behavior/compel reversal of negative faits accompli. They are able to convey both techniques of influence: promises of rewards for positive behavior and threats of punishment for negative behavior. They are able to affect the influencee’s decision calculus of utility and probability. Their diversity and breadth (from F-35s and F/A-18s, from LRASMs to Tomahawks, and to a Marine rifle company squad) and reach (to a thousand miles) permits them to reach out and touch something that matters (high utility) and their combat readiness gives them high credibility/probability of successful employment.

Being there counts. The ability to act without delay during the early days of a crisis or a potential crisis affects the influencee’s initial decision calculus in a special way. It precludes an opponent an early and easy fait accompli. It forces a rational opponent (influencee) to carefully evaluate carefully their courses of action. It tends to preclude impulsive behavior. It forces the influencee to conduct a utility/probability calculation. It buys us time to augment U. S. forces, if necessary. It gives us timely influence. And, at the end of the day, if the influence attempt is not timely, it is far less effective. Here in their forward presence lies the unique influence advantage of naval forces.

Captain Harris commanded USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore he served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel. He was a CNO Fellow in CNO Strategic Studies Group XII. It was during his stint as a CNO SSG Fellow that this article was first begun. Captain Harris is indebted to Mr. Dmitry Filipoff for his efforts in updating the draft, sharping the arguments, and greatly improving the readability.


1. Proceedings, U. S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, November, 1997.

2. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York, Knopf, 1948), pp. 6-7.

3. This discussion of power is drawn from J. David Singer, “Inter-Nation Influence: A Formal Model,” American Political Science Review, 17, 1963.

4. This papers examines the use of forward presence as an instrument of US influence and, therefore, focuses on those actions taken prior to the actual use of force, i.e., armed conflict.

5. The term “reinforcement” is taken from Singer, Ibid.

6. Intentional or deliberate influence is called DIRECT influence. Unintentional influence is here labeled INDIRECT influence.

7. See Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan, Force Without War, Brookings, 1978, pp. 70-78.

8. The utility-probability concept is drawn from Singer, op. cit., pp. 424-426.

9. See, for example, Dr. Edward Rhodes, “Conventional Deterrence: Reivew of Empirical Literature unpublished paper for the Department of the Navy (N3/5) 1997.

Featured Image: Off the coast of Hawaii on 20 June 2000, the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group steams alongside one another for a Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. Ships involved are Tucson (SSN-770) & Cheyenne (SSN-773), Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Shiloh (CG-67), Bunker Hill (CG-52), Fletcher (DD-992), Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), Cromlin (FFG-37) and Camden (AOE-2). (USN photo by PH2 Gabriel Wilson)

Eight Good Questions Strategic Thinkers Should Ask

This article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Aaron Bazin

Strategic thinking can happen almostb anywhere: in a conference room, a university lecture hall, or in the dark basement of a military headquarters. If you think about it, really anyone can do it, from a president to an Army private, from a subject matter expert to an armchair general. Although anyone can do it at any time and in any place, doing it well is neither easy nor is it commonplace.

A variety of research projects have sought to uncover what it means to think strategically in the military context. In general, strategic thinkers act primarily in one of four roles: leader, advisor, practitioner, or planner. To function effectively in these roles require the skills of information gathering, learning, critical thinking, creative thinking, thinking in time, and systems thinking. Building upon these ideas, the purpose of this article is to explore some of the timeless questions that strategic thinkers can ask to help themselves and others think clearly about issues of strategic significance.


"My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)
“My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)

This question is so basic it is often forgotten or glossed over, but asking it is absolutely essential. In a strategic context, there are a tremendous number of facts to consider. The key is to identify the ones that really matter the most without going too far and reaching the point of paralysis by analysis. As for assumptions, if never surfaced and debated they represent a sizable gap in one’s logic. Many failures at the strategic level are due to people insufficiently discussing assumptions, or worse, dismissing them outright. One recent example that highlights the importance of good assumptions is when decision makers assumed that the troops that invaded Iraq in 2003 would be “greeted as liberators.”

While strategic thinkers always should try to think in an unconstrained manner, there always exist some physical, logistical, moral, or financial limits to what is possible. Failure to understand the parameters and limits of a strategic approach has led to many military overextensions throughout history (e.g., Napoleon in Russia, Soviet Union in Afghanistan, etc.). Much like the enemy, the real world always gets a vote. Understanding the limiting factors and developing a common understanding of the problem are supporting activities, which leads to the next question.


Uncovering a problem statement is also essential, but often overlooked. Many strategic thinkers immediately dive in and start describing what must be done. In a fast-paced environment, it can be very tempting to do this, but it should be avoided. Fundamentally, if you do not pause and take the time to identify the problem you are trying to solve, how can you ever hope to solve it?

One of the easiest and most effective ways to develop a problem statement is to spot the gap between the current conditions and the desired conditions (the “want-got” gap). What is almost magical about developing a problem statement is that if you get it about right, the answer should begin to reveal itself, even in the most difficult of situations. Of course, most strategic problems are complex or wicked and change over time. Therefore, it is important for the strategic thinker to not only ask this question early, but also ask it again and again as the strategic problem unfolds.

By their nature, military thinkers often tend to think about negative, worse–case scenarios and outcomes. To take a more optimistic approach, one may find it valuable to look for opportunities as well as problems. The idea here is this: if one can seize small opportunities over time, this can build irreversible momentum and eventually bring about positive change. Overall, this question helps focus time, effort, and resources in a coherent, positive, singular direction.


Many strategic thinkers seek to implement parrot the latest policy position they heard without fully thinking about the inherent interests at play. Some argue that interests such as prosperity, values, security, and legitimacy, will always be important despite which direction the political winds are blowing. The strategic thinker should try to understand how the political intent is tied to the enduring interests that will remain long after a political position has changed. This question helps one put the problem in context and reflect upon the deeper strategic meaning behind the problem and its possible solutions.


The lessons of the past are always there to school the strategic thinker if they are willing to listen. Of course, events will rarely unfold exactly the same way twice, but there are often important echoes from the past to be heard in the present. This question suggests that strategists would be well served by looking for practical advice from history and tying those lessons to prudent courses of action in the present. Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time describes even more questions that help the strategic thinker make the most effective use of history. The benefits of this question are that it helps one reflect upon the past and generate possible options on what can be done today.


In the past, policy makers may have been satisfied with being presented between one and three courses of action. Today, many policy makers demand strategic advice as a menu of options, where they can pick and choose what to implement and when to implement it. In these cases, the strategic thinker has to think divergently and come up with as many options as possible. As strategic problems rarely have solely military solutions, strategic thinkers should have the ability to develop options that include elements of national power beyond just the “M” in the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) model. Of course, with wicked problems, there are often no good options, just a series of progressively bad ones.


It is easy for a strategic thinker to become so engrossed with the minutiae of the problem that they can lose sight of their goal. Perhaps, at times, the goal shifts and the previously agreed upon destination is now a fool’s errand. That is why this question is so important. The strategic thinker must have the ability to take a break from the crisis of the day and take the long view. Because there is often so much uncertainty surrounding strategic problems, reflecting on the end state is often difficult. However, if you do not know where you really want to go, any road will take you there.


When a policy is approved or a plan is signed, the thoughts captured on the document are frozen in time and begin their rapid descent into irrelevancy. This is a natural progression where a key concept’s idea is game-changing today, much less so in six-months, and barely remembered a year later. The key here for the strategic thinker is to not rest too much and remain in a state of continual assessment and advocate appropriate change as events unfold. As strategic problems are usually both quantitative and qualitative in nature, keeping an open mind to all types and sources of information is prudent.


Even the best strategic ideas are subject to failure if the follow through is lackluster, therefore, it is important to always ask what happens next. Every strategic choice comes with some degree of risk. These risks should be understood and, if possible, mitigated. In addition, with complex problems many issues remain unseen, and there is always the possibility of unintended consequences. Many strategic shortcomings are the result of taking prudent action in the present that results in future blowback that was unforeseen at the time.  An excellent example is the lack of U.S. follow through in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, popularized in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.


The level of responsibility placed on the shoulders of a strategic thinker can be daunting. The ability to think clearly is difficult in situations where time is of the essence, lives are on the line, or billions of dollars are on the table. It is precisely because of the high-stakes that good strategic thinkers need to ask good questions to uncover good answers. Of course, there are many questions that strategic thinkers should ask and this list is simply one starting point. In the end, the quality of one’s strategic thought will be directly proportional to the time and effort they put into the endeavor, no more and no less.

 Aaron Bazin is career Army officer with over 20 years of leadership and experience at the combatant command level, NATO, and the institutional Army.  Aaron was the lead-planner for four numbered contingency plans between 2009 and 2012, and has operational experience in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and UAE. He is the author of the new book, Think: Tools to Build Your Mind. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A reporter raises his hand to ask a question as US Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Commander of US Forces-Iraq, delivers an operational update on the state of affairs in Iraq during a press briefing at the Pentagon, 4 June 2010. (Cherie Cullen/DoD Photo)

CALL FOR ARTICLES: Movie Re-Fights (Dec 14-20)

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, people are already arguing over what the nature of the new Empire, or how the Rebellion has evolved. Many are debating the nuance of how these fictional sides even fight their wars to begin with, a question that remains delightfully open ended for most fictional war movies. So, we decided to use opening week as an excuse to throw down the gauntlet!

For any film – Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, Aliens, Independence Day, Top Gun, Rambo II-IV, Battleship, Tears of the Sun, the Great Escape, Failsafe, Master & Commander  – we are looking for articles answering the time-old cinema debate: How would you have done things differently, and why? How would you have fought the battles, the firefights, executed the operations, or set your rules of engagement? How would you have negotiated the treaties or… betrayed them? Maybe you wouldn’t have done anything differently – which is another fine argument to make. Perhaps, like the insanely plausible idea that Jar-Jar is a sith lord, you have a conspiracy theory to share… no worries, we’re not picky.

There was a recent article that suggested Star Wars could “prove” an operational concept couldn’t work, but movies can’t “prove” anything. We can, however, use them as a proxy by wish to discuss our ideas on strategy, politics, and military operations.

Week Dates: 14-20 Dec 15
Articles Due: 6 Dec 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org